It had been a damp night in the Clenane Valley: all that could be seen of the town was the dark stump of the round tower, hovering above the mist on the far side of the river, and all that could be heard was the tolling of the chapel bell and the occasional cough from amongst the hush of mourners, overflowing the Catholic cemetry: for it is not every day that the body of a fifty-three year-old farmer is found, rendered of all edible flesh and dumped, headless, in the bin of the parochial house - though, some members of the protestant community might have thought otherwise.
Fr. John Murphy, the parish priest, was away on urgent diocesan work. The elderly, Fr. Benedict, had been transferred only a month earlier from the baroque splendor of the Vatican’s College of Theology in Rome, and though his arrival had been a proud moment for the surprised parishioners, the wind and rain of Clenane Bridge had been detrimental to the old man’s health and he had declined to conduct the ceremony. So responsibility for officiating at the funeral fell on the narrow shoulders of the young curate, Fr. Finian Trim, who now stood at the edge of the rectangular mouth cut in the damp earth, fumbling with nervous fingers through the pages of his little black notebook, hunting for the words of Fr. Benedict, which he had scribbled down in the sacristy only a few hours earlier. These were words which the elderly priest had selected as sensitive additions to the graveside ceremony; they were words, designed to smooth the troubled feelings of a traumatised community; words, which would assure a frightened flock that their wise shepherds would guide them into pastures safe and new.
However, for Fr. Finian, the silence at the graveside now seemed to be growing into an almost unbearable tension as he struggled to locate the page. He could find everything else he had ever written in that notebook: a new and exciting look at the angelus, a list of things to buy on his next trip to the city, the rosary as a solution to teenage drunkenness, the names and phone numbers of the playground committee, questions of a religious nature for a pub quiz fundraiser, ideas for a Christmas present for his sister, notes for an article in the The Sacred Heart Chronicle. They were all there – all but the precious words that he now so desperately needed.
Every second that passed, the silence seemed to deepen. He was sure that his nervousness had been noted and it was always at difficult moments like these that he would begin to question his choice of occupation. Doubts had been nibbling at the hull of his consciousness for years and every so often they would resurface and threaten to capsize his entire life. Naturally, he never doubted the existence of God, or that Christ was His son and our Saviour. No Fr. Finian merely doubted whether his own nervous disposition suited him to the very public work of conveying God’s precious message. However, his path in life had been chosen at an early age – as soon as the midwife had announced his gender his mother rose in the bed and declared that, at last, they had a priest in the family. Indeed, during the course of his childhood, if the young Finian ever questioned this choice of career, his mother would assure him that before he left the seminary, the saints in Heaven would cure him of his chronic shyness and fill his soul with the light of confidence in preparation for the joyful role that God had chosen for him.
However, by some extraordinary miracle, he actually emerged as a priest with his terror of public speaking perfectly intact. The Sunday sacraments were an ordeal, which he dreaded all week. He was convinced that the people who packed all of his masses, despite their pious bearing, were actually drawn by the opportunity to enjoy his red-faced struggle to contain the tremble in his voice and were waiting in excited anticipation for the moment that his shaking hands would finally drop the body of Christ or spill His sacred blood. And, of course, it was on these occasions that Finian’s old enemy, the stammer, would sidle into his presence.
Battling to force his way through a word, Fr.Trim, would sometimes notice gleeful children nudging each other; or adults, with eyes downcast, struggling to cope with the seemingly hilarious content of their mass sheets. Indeed, he had no doubt that the gang of hardened atheists, grinning at the back, were there for no other reason than to place bets on how many ‘m’s he could add to ‘may the Lord be with you’ or how many ‘b’s to ‘body and blood’ or whether he would make it to the final blessing without bubbling over in a froth of verbal contortions and collapse on the altar in purple-faced asphyxiation – much to the secret delight and amusement of the parish.
Fr. Finian was now frantic as he stood by the grave. He could hear restless feet shuffling on the gravel and the occasional whispered question. In desperation he began hunting from the back of the notebook and it was only then that he, at last, found the page.
So it was that the young curate straightened up, looked at the mourners gathered round him, and prepared to address his flock, ignoring his pounding heart, his shaking hands and the nervous tick, which afflicted the corner of his mouth. As always, his trembling voice embarrassed him but he was determined to proceed. ‘Eh, I would just like to add a few words of a, of a, personal nature.’
A respectful hush fell on the gathering. Small children were silenced but Fr. Finian’s tongue was paralysed. The full horror of what he had just said stunned him. He had just told a lie. These were not his words. These were the words of Fr. Benedict!
Fr. Finian gaped at his audience. Should he make a public confession? Should he now admit to this slight deception? Or would this admission undermine his standing even further and would that, in turn, add to his anxiety and bring on the dreaded stammer?
He reasoned that the word ‘personal’ could be taken to refer to the personal views of Fr. Benedict and therefore the sentence would not be a lie. However, this would still be a deception, as Fr. Benedict didn’t know Paddy Slattery and the views expressed were not those of the elderly priest, they were the views of Fr. Finian, although put into words by Fr. Benedict. But the question now arose: were they even the views of Fr. Finian? Did he really believe these things about the late farmer? After all, he hardly knew the man.
Fr. Finian’s fragile self-confidence was now crumbling. A panic attack was on its way. He decided to proceed with all haste despite suspecting that a sin now stained his soul. However, it was then that the most terrible thought of all suddenly shouldered its way into his head. He was astounded that it had never occurred to him before.
Not once in the three frantic days since the discovery of the body of Paddy Slattery did he consider that people might think that he could be the murderer.
The blood drained from his face.
There was a horrible logic to this proposition.
The body had after all, been found in the bin of the parochial house. Someone must have done it. Naturally, Fr. Murphy was above suspicion: the robust parish priest had been working in the parish for fifteen years. And the people would hardly suspect old Fr. Benedict: he was a theologian and in his seventies. Mrs. Mack, the housekeeper, was surely not capable of killing and eating a fifty-three year-old farmer. So it followed that in their minds, he, Fr. Finian, the new curate, must be the prime suspect.
Already the panic attack was gathering strength. Fr. Finian’s heart was now galloping. He could feel the onslaught coming. He decided that he had better take a firm grip on his emotions for if he didn’t, fright would run riot - and he knew only too well that there was no bottom to the abyss of shame and dread into which he would soon be falling.
And, yet, he was an innocent man.
Why should he bear guilt for something that he had not done?
However, on the other hand, why shouldn’t he? After all, had he not been born with his soul stained by the sin of Eve? - a woman in the Book of Genesis? Indeed, what had Isaac done to deserve being murdered by Abraham? Or what had Job done to deserve torture by God?
His very faith was starting to fall apart. He decided that he had better take hold of himself. He told himself that he had nothing to fear - nothing to fear but fear itself! But then fear is a very powerful force. In fact, it is probably the most powerful force in the human world. It is capable of tearing our minds apart. It is capable of driving us mad.
Desperate, he sought refuge in the wise words of his late mother. He knew what she would say: “Son, this life is just a trial set for us by God. The innocent shall have their reward in eternal life.”
Fr. Finian felt a measure of calm return. He felt he was gaining control once again. His faith had been restored by the simple wisdom of an old woman. He looked down at the words and cleared his throat. He opened his mouth to speak and was about to do so when a large drop of water splashed onto the page.
He stared in disbelief. The ink was beginning to spread. Several words were already merging into an unreadable blur. With horror he realized that he was failing the test. He had sin on his soul and God’s vengeance had been swift: his lie was being punished and it was being punished here and now.
A breath of wind sent more drops splattering all round him. Fr. Finian now knew that he was in a race against time. He had an angry and vengeful God in pursuit. Quickly he began to read. ‘Eh, P..P…Pad, Pad, Pad, eh, I muh, muh, mean, eh, eh, Pad…Pad…Paddy Slat..Slat..Slattery, was a, was a, was a, was a, f-f-fine m..m..man! He, he, he!..He, he, he was a puh-puh-pleasure to muh…muh…muh…’ It was the dreaded ‘M’. He tried again. ‘a puh-puh-pleasure to muh…muh…muh…’ No good. The battery was flat but he had to keep turning the ignition. ‘A pleasure to muh…muh…muh…!’ He decided he had done enough ‘m’s so he took a deep breath and, with huge effort, produced the rest of the word: ‘…EET!’
A sharp intake of breath from the mourners drew Fr. Finian’s eyes from the page. All around him, blank faces stared wide-eyed. With shock he realised what they were thinking.
They thought he had said ‘eat’.
He swallowed. ‘Actually, eh, the wor…wor…word I muh…muh…meant, to say was, eh,me-me-…!’ Again the letter ‘M’ was barring his way. The word ‘meet’ would not come out. He tried again. ‘…it was me-me-me-!’ He raised his voice in desperation. ‘IT WAS M-M-ME!’ Fury and frustration were building inside him but he was determined to win this battle. ‘IT W-WAS M-M-MEE!’ He could feel the veins bulging at his temples. He took a deep breath and screamed: ‘MEEEEEEEEEEEEET!’
Silence followed. People near him had shrunk back in fright. It was as if the whole assembly was transfixed. Fr. Finian was gasping for breath but he had won! He had defeated his old enemy! For once he had forced his tongue to do his bidding. He felt the glow of confidence return to his cheeks until, amid the silence, a child’s voice chirped up.
‘Daddy, does that man want ‘Meat’?’
No one moved. The three gravediggers at the back were craning forward, their mouths open, desperate to hear more. The veiled head of the young widow, Faith Slattery, had tilted slightly. Even the chubby altar boy, Maguire, had stopped working his left nostril and now stood frozen, gaping up, a forefinger halfway up his nose.
Fr. Finian felt that his life had finally crumbled into the nightmare he had always dreaded. Somehow, he had to rescue the situation but the eyes of the entire community now had him pinned like a trapped rabbit. The world was beginning to spin. He wanted to turn and flee. He wanted to run from this awful life. He wanted to become a hermit or be reincarnated as a beetle and crawl away under a stone. It was then that someone moved. It was Faith Slattery.
‘Thank you, Father,’ she said, and bending slightly, she reached down for the soil at her feet. Carefully she removed one black velvet glove and with elegant fingers gripped a handful of dark earth. Gracefully, she rose, sprinkled the soil onto the lid of the coffin and then, giving him a brief smile, she turned to leave.
There followed a moment of hesitation as people stepped aside to let her through. Unlike her late husband, Faith Slattery was not a Catholic. The coffin had not yet been lowered into the grave. Sprinkling earth at this stage was not normal practice in Clenane. However, within a moment others were following her example, hastily adding their own contributions and hurrying away: the bar of the Clenane Arms Hotel needed their urgent attention.
Fr. Finian could feel the chilled sweat under his armpits. Shaking, he turned for the safety of the parochial house, convinced that his career in the dioceses was now over and that sharp eyes were scrutinizing his every movement for further signs of guilt.